Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson flew over the gulf oil spill Saturday, later telling people at a meeting in New Orleans that “it’s like all five of the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes are oil sheen.”
Jackson spent much of her time dealing with residents' memories about Hurricane Katrina and the slow federal response to that disaster.
The meeting took place in a tiny church in the Lower Ninth Ward, a hardscrabble neighborhood symbolic of Washington’s ineptitude in responding to the 2005 hurricane. Almost five years after the storm ripped through, houses were abandoned, boarded up and spray-painted with markings that officials had left while searching for the dead: “9-10” for date inspected, “DEA” for agency, “0” for animals found, “0” for people.
Inside the church, stacks of The National Baptist Hymnal had been pushed aside for at least 50 people and some TV cameras. Community leaders questioned Jackson – who reminded them she had grown up in New Orleans – and their concerns were clearly informed by the sluggish Katrina response.
This time, however, BP was cast as the villain and Washington as a would-be white knight they didn’t yet trust. “I’m still leery of the EPA,” one man told Jackson, to scattered applause.
The crowd wanted to know if the government would work with community groups and call in social service help for still-fragile communities.“There aren’t any cities that have five years of practice in how to come together,” another man said. One woman mentioned the “double whammy” of Katrina and the oil spill on the poor.
“We are not well. No, we are not well,” said another speaker, Alice Craft-Kerney, a nurse who runs the Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic.
Questioners talked about needing “factual information,” as opposed to the rumor and commotion that marked the days after Katrina. One man fretted about Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, which thus far has been unaffected by the spill. Aaron Viles, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, mentioned the conflicting reports of how much oil was spewing into the water.
“I’m worried a lot of spinning is happening,” Viles said. “We want to make sure the federal government is doing the math, not letting BP off the hook.”
The crowd worried about the potential for region-wide economic devastation and wanted BP to hire more local fishermen for the cleanup effort, saying the oil company hadn’t moved fast enough to enlist them near Venice, La., where the spill is poised to strike.
“I know everyone’s mad,” said a patient Jackson, who said Washington was overseeing the cleanup efforts and had pushed BP to hire locals. At least three times, she said some version of “the polluter pays,” which was met with applause and murmurs of “BP Oil.”
The slick had red-orange stripes that she compared to a tiger’s. Some of the oil booms intended to corral the spill had broken, though she said that was not uncommon. “I’m still praying they will be able to cut off the source,” she said.
Jackson said she was skeptical of dispersing the gushing oil at the wellhead, a method officials were testing, and that much about the spill’s potential effect was still unclear, including which fisheries might be closed and for how long.
“It’s just like a hurricane,” she said. “We’re looking at the forecast. We’re trying to figure out where it’s going to go.”
-- Geoff Mohan
Photo: NASA image of oil spill, April 29.